Adventures in Overthinking Prayer

thinking(This ended up becoming a series. Here’s Part 2 and Part 3.)

I have no guarantee that God will grant my prayers.

Disruptive statement, no?

This is not me fishing for reassurance in your comments, by the way. I’m trying to speak honestly about a stark reality. Except for a handful of explicit promises in Scripture (salvation, peace, heaven, etc.), there’s no guarantee that God will grant any prayer of mine. Like the missions opportunity I’m currently examining, or the kidney healing for a friend.

First, to be perfectly frank, my very audience before him is an undeserved gift.

Second, it’s hard to know whether certain prayers – for myself or others – are optimal for the person being prayed for. That can be a huge hangup to prayer confidence. Why invest months or years of heartfelt prayer in something when you don’t yet know God wants it?

Third, I know my theology of suffering too well. Christianity is a call to come and die. If you think it’s about getting your dreams actualized, you’ve got another thing coming. Even Jesus didn’t get all his prayers answered – and there was glory in that (Matt. 26:39). Dare we think that a servant is greater than that Master?

Finally, Scripture gives us every reason to think that God might deny our prayers for our spiritual benefit (2 Cor. 12:9). I wholeheartedly believe that he leaves to each of us at least one lingering heartache, a thorn, a cross to carry all of our days without resolution (do you not have yours?) so we’ll remember that this isn’t our home. Denied prayers transform us; they provide opportunities to allow God to become our all; they lift our gaze to heaven. There is no greater treasure. So why would God grant a lesser one by answering my prayer?

You might begin to suspect that I have an overthinking problem.

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Goodies and Godliness

goodiesThere is a rhythm to our repentance and God’s grace.

Part 1: Be Careful What You Ask For

Part 2: Sex Isn’t Making Anyone Happy

Part 3: All The Wrong Reasons?

Part 4: He Runs to Us 

Isaiah sees God and laments his unworthiness, only to be cleansed with a coal on the lips (Isaiah 6:5-7).

Daniel is put on the ground by just an angel; he is invited to stand and called “highly esteemed” (Daniel 10:5-12).

In grief over Israel’s defeat at Ai, Joshua falls to his face, which you’d think appropriate, but God says, “Stand up! What are you doing up on the floor?”

The Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:27) and the centurion (Matthew 8:8-9) plead Jesus’ mercy, not their own merit; he grants their requests.

Peter sees a miraculous catch of fish and tries to push Jesus away out of unworthiness; Jesus merely ups his role in the kingdom (Luke 5:8-10).

Later, he says he can’t accept a foot-washing from his Savior; Jesus responds that he’d better find a way to accept (John 13:8)!

Finally, after Peter is faceplanted by the transfigured Christ’s glory (Peter gets a lot of time in the “faceplanted” category, does he not?), Jesus touches him and tells him not to be afraid (Matt. 17:6-7).

Do you see the beauty of it? The more God’s glory is revealed, the more our sin is illuminated. We are driven to our knees by a sense of our unworthiness. Yet God reaches for us. He places us on our feet.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:21-24)

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Can You Be a Realist and Still Have Faith?

Public domain image from www.public-domain-image.comI saw a friend ask this question on my Facebook feed recently. Given that God has seen fit to grant me a minuscule glimpse of an understanding of prayer during my few adult years, I immediately thought of a crucial Scripture that addresses the question.

We all struggle for things in this life. Victory, deliverance, breakthrough, blessing, healing, bounty, hearts’ desires. It’s a tricky high-wire to walk, for no matter what some people tell you, the Christian life is not all about these things. George Herbert wrote,

To be in both worlds full
Is more than God was, who was hungry here.

Are we to believe a servant is greater than his master? The Bible doesn’t stutter: not every prayer will be granted in this life, not every hardship averted. And that is both curse and privilege. We simply must start there. If you can’t accept that word, your life will be a shattering staccato of foiled expectations. If you can, you’ll have room to turn to Jesus, finding him to be the ultimate prize that can never be stolen.

However.

I’ve also learned not to put limits on God’s generosity. He is scandalously generous. Sometimes the church, in its frustration with the masses grasping for “prosperity” and deaf to all else, will race to the other extreme and quietly throw cold water on blessing of any kind. (This really is a thing. Just observe your reaction if I write the phrase “bold prayer”. You instantly pull up and worry: Is this right? Respectful? Scriptural?) But it buries a great truth: God does answer prayer. The Bible speaks of many such times, and seems to hold them out to us rather excitedly. God can teach us about himself through a “yes”, grow closer to us through a “yes”, as well as a “no”.

But this merely yields another problem: our cynicism. Where is this generosity? Our experiences don’t match up to the awesome power God wields in the Bible – yet. “This is reality,” we want to say. “God doesn’t do that stuff anymore.”

I certainly want to believe. What is reality, really, if God is your God?

But regardless of how many stories we hear about provisions and breakthroughs that are tough to pass off as science or coincidence, something in our hearts has a hard time with faith. Some of us have been left feeling fed up with hope; some of us are just down-to-earth by nature. We feel stuck between reality and faith, between hope and surrender. “If I’m going to undertake any long season of hope and prayer about something,” we say, “then I want to know I’m grounded in reality. I want to know I’m not losing my mind.”

You could have been friends with Abraham. God gave him a crucial key to faith in the midst of realism (or is it the other way around?)

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Tipping and Grace: Do Christians Ever Have the Right to Stiff?

jar2A former pastor once told of an experience as a caterer. He served two groups in the same day that could not have treated him more differently. The first was a gathering of homosexual folks; they were warm, friendly, and left a great tip. The other was impatient, grouchy, fault-finding, and left no tip at all.

The second group was a pastors’ luncheon.

Tipping has become a flashpoint in our social consciousness. I suppose it was inevitable that the smartphone age would allow us to capture and publicize everyone’s tips. (Here’s a montage of tips that would be hilarious if not for their rudeness.) But it’s worth talking about for Christians, because any question of generosity becomes a checkup on how we’re doing as the salt of the earth.

Some Christians respond to this call by leaving tracts for their waiters instead of tips.

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It’s the worst thing ever.

Look, I get the reasoning. Tracts can potentially lead to salvation, and salvation is worth far more than few bucks.

But we Christians aren’t supposed to be operating on our own reasoning. We’re supposed to be operating on God’s. Here’s it is, if you’re interested:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17)

My friends, waiters and waitresses live off their tips. When I worked as a pizza delivery driver (a nice earner during football season, I would mention to the college folks), my tips usually amounted to two to three times my actual wage. It was still only marginally worth the wear and tear on my car (and my gas tank). Very rarely will eight or nine bucks an hour get anyone through college. So trust me, your waiter isn’t there for the joy of minimum wage.

 

God understands and appreciates the practical plane, and he ties the validity of our works to it with cords of Scripture. Jesus teaches that meeting worldly needs is a terrific opening to the Gospel (and not the other way around). Christians’ failure to meet these needs gives the world an easy opportunity to beat us at our own Christ-commissioned game: generosity.

Never offer a prayer to which you can be the answer.

But there is an even greater matter on my mind today. Suppose your waiter or driver gives you bad service. Drops food, rolls his eyes, or something. It is often our practice in that instance to withhold tips, in the hopes of “encouraging” better service next time.

I just want to ask one thing.

Is that anywhere close to the way Jesus handles us?

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